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Jack Nelson, 80; Pulitzer-winning L.A. Times reporter

FILE - This Nov. 29, 1972 file photo shows Los Angeles Times' Washington bureau writer Jack Nelson. An associate of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jack Nelson said Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2009 that he died Wednesday morning at his home in Bethesda, Md. He was 80. (AP Photo/File)
FILE - This Nov. 29, 1972 file photo shows Los Angeles Times' Washington bureau writer Jack Nelson. An associate of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jack Nelson said Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2009 that he died Wednesday morning at his home in Bethesda, Md. He was 80. (AP Photo/File) (AP)

During his first year at the Atlanta paper, he wrote a devastating exposé of vice and corruption in Hinesville, Ga. A grand jury indicted 44 of the town's leading residents, so many that when Mr. Nelson arrived to cover the legal proceedings, he was mobbed, spread-eagled across the hood of a car by a deputy sheriff while the locals yelled for blood.

Mr. Nelson appealed to a passing judge to arrest his attacker, but the judge refused to intervene. A police officer saved him from lynching, but not from eventual arrest by vengeful deputies, who charged him with, among other things, rape. The charges were later dropped.

Mr. Nelson covered the arrival of federal troops sent to enforce desegregation of the schools in Little Rock, but he said it wasn't until 1965, when he became the Atlanta bureau chief for the Times, that he began to seriously cover the civil rights movement.

He was harassed and threatened by racists but never assaulted, as some other reporters were. That was perhaps because of his Southern accent, crew-cut hair and his habit of dressing in a business suit, creating an appearance that he put to his advantage when violence broke out in Orangeburg, S.C., in 1968. Three students were killed and two dozen wounded when more than 100 state troopers, National Guardsmen and local police fired on students protesting a racially segregated bowling alley.

Mr. Nelson went straight to the local hospital, Roberts and Klibanoff reported in their book, and introduced himself as "Nelson, with the Atlanta bureau. I've come to see the medical records." Those records proved that 16 students had been shot in the back and others wounded on the soles of their feet. The FBI began to investigate, but Mr. Nelson didn't leave the story there. He wrote that the federal agents were eating, drinking and sharing hotel rooms with the state troopers they were investigating.

In 1970, Mr. Nelson moved to Washington as an investigative reporter for the Times. He dug into the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, who were suspects in nine slayings and 300 assaults and bombings in 1968.

He also disclosed that the FBI, frustrated by its inability to catch the most elusive bomber, paid and intimidated two Klan leaders to order the bomber to dynamite the home of a Jewish merchant in Meridian, Miss. The setup went awry. An accomplice was killed and the would-be bomber wounded after a wild escape attempt.

Although FBI agents had been among his best sources, Mr. Nelson became a persona non grata at the agency. Longtime Director J. Edgar Hoover sought to have him fired. In 1971, at a Washington awards banquet, Hoover told The Washington Post's Sally Quinn: "I view Jack Anderson as the top scavenger of all columnists. Jack Nelson is next to a skunk."

Mr. Nelson was forthright in his admiration of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., telling a Syracuse University oral history project interviewer in 2004 that King was "the greatest orator I ever covered in over 50 years of reporting and he inspired people."

"A reporter likes to pride himself on being as objective as he can, and . . . tell both sides of the story," he said. "Well, there's hardly two sides to a story of a man being denied the basic right to vote. I mean, where do you get the other side? . . . There's no two sides to a story of a lynching, a lynching is a lynching."

Without the media, the 1965 voting rights act or the 1964 public accommodations act would not have passed, he said. "We didn't do as well as we could've done, but in a sense it was one of the finest hours of American press," he said.

Mr. Nelson became the Times' bureau chief in 1975, holding that post until 1995, when he became chief Washington correspondent for the newspaper.

Reporters Committee

In 1970, Mr. Nelson was one of 13 Washington and New York journalists who met at Georgetown University's law library out of concern about a federal grand jury subpoena served on New York Times reporter Earl Caldwell. After the three-hour meeting, Nelson and two then-New York Times reporters, Fred Graham and J. Anthony Lukas, coined the name of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, and distributed a press release to news wire services, launching the group. Over the past 40 years, the Reporters Committee has become a national clearinghouse for information and legal help for reporters all over the country.

Mr. Nelson was a Nieman fellow at Harvard University in 1961. Among his books were "Terror in the Night: The Klan's Campaign Against the Jews" (1993), "The Censors and the Schools" (1963) with Gene Roberts, "The Orangeburg Massacre" (1970) with Jack Bass and "The FBI and the Berrigans" (1973) with Ronald J. Ostrow. His 1974 book "Captive Voices," about the state of high school journalism, led to the creation of the Student Press Law Center.

His marriage to Virginia Dare Dickinson ended in divorce. A son from that marriage, Steven H. Nelson, died in the 1980s.

Survivors include his wife of 34 years, Barbara Joan Matusow; two children from his first marriage, Karen Arnold of Grayson, Ga., and John M. "Mike" Nelson of Lilburn, Ga.; a brother; a sister; six grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.


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